One of the most desirable characteristics of school graduates is that they can think critically. This helps them individually and also helps the societies in which they will play a role. It’s a game in which no one loses. So why is it so difficult to achieve?
Teaching critical thinking is not something that teachers are explicitly trained to do – in fact very few people are. Nor does the curriculum generally demand it. Too often an instructing syllabus focuses on the recall of content, and this in turn forms the basis for assessment.
In standardised assessment in particular it is simply cheaper and quicker to algorithmically mark multiple-choice questions than it is to read and assess nuanced responses showing an advanced use of cognitive skills.
South Africa has a standardised system including a highly regulated matriculation programme and national testing that together act as the barometer of good schooling. But there is some debate as to how effectively these kinds of tests measure the outcomes of an education in critical thinking, let alone their value as an educational device.
People often define a rigorous course as one that is heavy in content. This is misleading. Intellectual rigour lies in the sophisticated use of a range of cognitive critical thinking skills such as analysis, justification, synthesis and evaluation. Recalling content or demonstrating algorithmic procedures makes up only a small part of this.
The desire to teach to the test at the expense of skills not measured by them is a universal characteristic of standardised testing. The danger is that if critical thinking is not explicitly assessed, it will not be valued and therefore not taught.
The South African context
None of this is unique to South Africa, but several things make the problem more acute.
Attendance in South African schools is generally high but some schools are struggling to provide continuity of learning because of problems with student attendance and engagement.
A stated objective of the relatively new CAPS curriculum in South Africa is to develop critical thinking. This is an important step in the right direction, though a strategy needs to be developed for how this can be achieved.
I recently spoke to a number of schools throughout the country as a guest of Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA), a non-profit organisation encouraging and resourcing the teaching of effective thinking in schools.
Faced with these problems, TSSA has developed several principles that seem, to this international observer, quite effective. These principles (the phrasing is mine) include:
This is intended to produce sustainable, whole-school transformation through globally tried and tested methodologies involving local communities of practice. TSSA-affiliated schools and teachers become part of the TSSA Network to support and train others.
There are many advantages available to students who can think critically. One significant but overlooked advantage is that it develops resilience.
Students who have an ability to think their way through problems, a confidence in their ability to do so, and who can apply critical thinking skills to understand their circumstances and explore options open to them are more likely to successfully navigate through their school years.
Within the context of South Africa’s complex social and economic challenges and opportunities, resilience is likely to be a vital virtue.
Teaching critical thinking
There are a variety of approaches to developing courses in critical thinking though it’s preferable that critical thinking pedagogies are used in the delivery of all subjects. In this comprehensive model, students are taught the explicit skills of thinking as they learn their discipline knowledge.
But as teaching Mathematics, Science or English is not just about knowing the subject matter but knowing how to teach that subject matter (called pedagogical content knowledge), so too the teaching of critical thinking is about more than just knowing some useful thinking tools.
It’s not enough to know about critical thinking, you have to know how to teach for it. It’s difficult to create students who are critical thinkers without teachers who are critical thinkers.
Teaching someone to surf by just handing them a surfboard seems less than optimal, as does teaching students to think by simply delivering worksheets. Without knowing what to do with them, without an insight into their purpose and function, goals falls short of being realised.
In the case of surfing, it also helps to have a beach. In critical thinking, it’s about the community - social, educational and institutional.
This is the advantage of the TSSA approach, and all approaches that focus on working collaboratively and inclusively to build capacity in schools, teachers and communities for sustainable and effective teaching and learning.
Like a language, critical thinking is not something you can learn alone. The best way to produce a critically thinking student is from within a critical thinking community.
Our current education system is flawed, as has been ably highlighted by Paulo Frere and more recently Sir Ken Robinson. Our outdated industrial paradigm is no longer able to keep children engaged in a world of ubiquitous digital stimulation. The chemical “solution” of medicating learners into becoming compliant products on the education production line, is increasingly being viewed as not only dangerous and inappropriate, but also not addressing the real problem – the flawed system. Now schools are turning their attention towards a technological solution, one that may be even more disastrous than its forebear - one that bears many of the hallmarks of the emperor’s new clothes.
While businesses have adopted technology for over a quarter of a century, schools remained largely unchanged and irresolute. As the pressure mounts from vendors offering “solutions”, to parents pointing to other schools, to decreasing attention spans of children, schools are suddenly scrambling to implement educational technology solutions and governments and industry are wantonly throwing money at this new “solution”.
Failure in the air?
However, unlike business that instructed technology companies about their needs, schools are being instructed by technology companies about how they should teach.
Now we are seeing the first signs of concern, as these technology solutions fail, and some in a grand scale as was the case in the failed Los Angeles iPad initiative. Already schools are glancing nervously at each other as they begin to wonder, “have we been sold the emperor’s new clothes?” This immediately leads to a cycle of blame – it’s the wrong technology, it’s the wrong strategy, it’s the wrong content. While all of these may be partially true, the issues are far simpler, yet far more critical. The impending failure of educational technology will be due to a lack of appropriate experts and an appropriate digital pedagogy.
Following the wrong leader
The lack of experts, may seem somewhat surprising, especially in a world where there is no shortage of experts. However it is the lack of appropriate experts that is the concern. Ironically schools are eagerly following the dictates of non-educational organizations to inform them about their area of expertise -pedagogy. This is somewhat akin to an aircraft manufacturer telling farmers how to farm because they want to use a plane for crop spraying. And so we are seeing a flood of schools using iPads, or rolling out laptops equipped with eBooks, and “valuable” learning videos, because the technology experts have told them to. The problem we have is that while technology companies understand technology and teachers understand teaching, we have few who understand technology-based education.
The Copy-Paste mistake
The second core issue is the lack of an appropriate digital pedagogy. The heart of this problem may be put down to a single word – skeuomorphism. Most people have a natural aversion to the new, and so technology giants such as Apple, Google and Microsoft have long employed skeuomorphic design principles to soften our transition from old technologies to new ones. Skeuomorphism is quite simply the retention of the form of the old without its function. This is classically seen in smartphone cameras that click like a DSLR camera, or pages in an ebook reader that curl as they are turned like a paper book, or a diary app with a “leather” cover and bookmark. None of these elements has any functional value, but simply carry a resemblance to the form of the past, thereby imbuing the user with a sense of familiarity and comfort.
However, it is the widespread adoption of skeuomorphic-based digital pedagogies that is causing technology-based teaching to fail. Schools are wearing their digital clothing, where they have the form of the offline world, with little valuable function in the online world. For example, lauding the use of ebooks as a remarkable implementation of educational technology. Besides saving trees, there is no difference in pedagogy. Or, applauding a school’s smartboard implementation, whereas they offer little teaching or learning differences to their old blackboard counterpart. Or, the enthusiastic use of videos on iPads for modern teaching, whereas these videos are no different, pedagogically, to a real teacher presenting a class. Simply copying offline teaching approaches and pasting them into an online world is not only limiting the potential of educational technology, it is further damaging our tottering educational system.
A new digital pedagogy
Ken Robinson called for a revolution in education because the system is failing. Schools are responding by pouring technology into classrooms. But what we're actually seeing is the silicon coating of old industrial paradigms and pedagogies while boasting about new innovative approaches. Dipping our kids in silicon by essentially replacing their chemical tablets with digital tablets will no more solve the problem than our first failed attempt at medicating our kids into learning did.
We need to seek out appropriate guides who are attempting to understand the affordances of new technologies. We need to develop appropriate pedagogies that don’t simply copy offline approaches and paste them in skeuomorphic subservience into the digital world. We need to rethink, reimagine, and redesign how we teach and learn, otherwise the revolution may be over before it even begins.
This post forms the basis of the thinking for the article published in The Conversation entitled "Outdated teaching methods will blunt technology’s power"
Watch a seminar dealing with this issue in more detail
Outdated teaching methods will blunt technology's power
The man who runs state education in South Africa’s richest province has no time for old-fashioned classroom accessories. In January, Panyaza Lesufi, who heads the education portfolio in the Gauteng province, told journalists at Boitumelong Secondary School just outside Johannesburg:
Lesufi was at the school to promote the Big Switch On pilot, a project in which pupils are given tablets loaded with textbooks and their schools receive interactive whiteboards. “You will never accuse me of failure to deliver textbooks,” he said. “You will now accuse me of failure to download.”
But is making technology available to schools without adapting curricula or teaching methods to a digital platform actually worthwhile?
The trouble with copy-pasting
According to John Hedberg from the Australian Centre for Educational Studies, e-learning can only be successful if there is a “revolutionary move away from replicating traditional classroom-based teaching practices”.
At the heart of Hedberg’s critique is the idea of skeuomorphism, which is keeping the form of the old but discarding its function. Think of smart phone cameras that “click” like a DSLR camera or pages in an e-book reader that “curl” as they are turned – just like a paper book. Thanks to Hollywood star Tom Hanks you can even make your laptop’s keyboard sound like a quaint old typewriter.
Technology giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft have all used skeuomorphic designs to soften the transition from old technologies to new.
These features don’t have any functional value but their resemblance to forms of the past gives users a sense of comfort and familiarity.
Tablets and smart whiteboard won’t magically make pupils smarter unless teachers know how to use the devices properly and in a way that encourages learning. When Brandon Martinez and his colleagues from the University of Southern California started training teachers to use educational technology, they looked to the aviation industry for inspiration. Writing about their experiences, Martinez said:
In 2011, Clintondale High School in Michigan became the global poster child for “flipped” classrooms. This is an exciting example of how educational technology can change teaching and learning if it is properly used and doesn’t just become a copy-paste substitute for old methods.
A flipped classroom inverts traditional teaching methods. “Lectures” happen after hours, usually at home – students watch instructional videos at their own pace.
During formal class time, students are given activities that help them engage with concepts. Rather than just standing in front of the class and reading from a textbook or tablet – what some theorists call the “sage on the stage” model – teachers become “guides on the side”, available to answer questions and lead discussions.
Clintondale High’s combination of new technology and radically different teaching methods has pushed up its pass rates, improved discipline and seen more of its students securing college places.
The educational technology boom isn’t limited to the developed world. It is growing rapidly in countries like India and Brazil. If teachers are exposed to new digital teaching approaches, and given the space to experiment with technology, we can begin to produce a whole new generation of pupils: those who think and create and not those who just sit in classrooms waiting to be told what they should do or know.
Avoiding the white elephant syndrome
In August 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District launched a US$1 billion project designed to make its schools high-tech havens. A month later, officials discovered that nearly 300 students at one high school had hacked through security and were using their district-issued iPads to surf the Web rather than study.
Then, in April 2015, it emerged that a digital curriculum developed by publishers Pearson and loaded onto pupils' iPads as part of the district’s ambitious project was simply “unusable”. Critics complained that the project had been rushed from conception to execution far too quickly and without any proper planning.
Why wasn’t the technology pre-tested by the teachers who were expected to use it every day? Technology companies may understand the mechanics of their products, but it’s teachers who understand teaching and who must be involved in making those products more than just electronic white elephants in the classroom.
Dr. Craig Blewett is the author and founder of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) approach. He helps schools and universities around the world towards the effective use of educational technology.
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